Carla Damron

Outer Banks

Zanne rummaged through the cluttered medicine cabinet for the pills. She knew she hadn’t thrown them out, even during her cleaning frenzy last month when she tossed a dozen expired medicines and secured every cleaning product they owned behind child-proofed cupboard doors. Once Grace turned three, she’d grown curious about the things kept hidden from her, so hiding them had become a delicate art.

But Zanne had left the pills there, she was sure of it. When she pulled out Greg’s razor blades and the Dora the Explorer bandages, she found it. Amitryptilene 100 mgs. With almost ninety left, they would surely do the job. Zanne slipped the bottle into her pocket and fastened the medicine cabinet with the plastic latch Greg had installed after Grace demonstrated her exceptional climbing skills. Her little monkey.

The shoebox came next. It was where she’d always left it on the top shelf in her closet, just above a stack of winter sweaters that never made their way into the attic like she’d planned. Just as well. October had already breathed chilly air on North Carolina and Zanne didn’t manage the cold very well once chemo started. Her hand froze on the box. She had promised herself not to think about that. Not until she knew.

“There you are.” Greg sounded relieved, as though he’d expected her to have flown the coop.

“Here I am,” she replied, slipping the box behind a jacket so he wouldn’t see it. Silly, she knew, but she’d given up trying to make sense of her own actions.

“So what’s the plan? Are you going to work today?”

“I took a personal day.”

“Good.” Greg scanned the closet as if he’d lost something. “Maybe I should stay home, too.”

“Why? There’s nothing you can do.”

“I can keep you company.”

Greg was already dressed for work: blue polo shirt, twill trousers, and brown loafers. “I’m trying to get someone to cover my afternoon class. Please stay busy in the meantime. It’s not good for you to just wait for the phone to ring.”

She tightened the screws on her smile. “Good advice.”

“I’ll get Grace ready for daycare,” Greg said.

She closed the bedroom door behind him and placed the box on the bed. The corners of the cardboard lid had torn with age so she opened it gently. Inside lay a jumble of shells, papers, stones and even a few pieces of jewelry. She lifted a dried flower, the petals curled and delicate. A withered leaf along its stem broke off and crumbled into dust.

It had rained on Daddy’s wedding day. The ring of daisies on Zanne’s head had itched, and the shiny shoes pinched her toes as she walked up the aisle, scattering flowers from a basket. Behind her, Ricky carried a white pillow with two rings poised on it. When he came to stand beside her at the altar rail, she could see his hands shaking, but he grinned proudly at having not dropped the rings. As Daddy promised to love Celia “in sickness and in health,” Zanne had reached for her brother’s hand.

She wondered if she should call Ricky. They hadn’t talked since his birthday last month. He’d be mad at her for not telling him, but every time the words spilled from her mouth they hardened, becoming as immovable as ice, and she wasn’t ready for her future to be frozen. Not yet.

“Mommy!” Grace burst through the door, an opened magic marker gripped in her left hand. Zanne scooped her up, grabbing the marker and wondering what wall or piece of furniture had been victimized by a purple Sharpie. “You gots toys in there?” Grace squirmed towards the open box.

“No, sweetie. Just looking through some old stuff.” As Zanne carried her wiggling child down the stairs and into the kitchen, she couldn’t help but glance at the answering machine, but the message light wasn’t blinking. It was still early yet.

Greg spotted the marker. “Oh no. Not another mural.”

“I think I caught her in time.” The sketch of a pink dog standing beside an orange and cobalt blue tree still donned the inside of the bathroom door because Zanne couldn’t make herself paint over it. Maybe she’d let Grace do graffiti all over the house, a picture for every year of life, every wall a tantrum of color.

“Okay, squirt. Time to get this show on the road.” Greg took her from Zanne’s arms and held her hand as they approached the door. He paused, turning back to look at Zanne. His eyes were a neutral gray that changed with his mood, sometimes stormy like the sea, sometimes clear as a summer sky. Just then they were dark and intense, studying her like he could see through her skin. “It’s going to be alright, Zanne.”

She glanced over at the phone again.

“I’ll come home as soon as I can. Love you.” He kissed her, his lips hungrier than usual.

“Love you, too.”

She heated water and poured a cup of chamomile tea, adding a swirl of milk. The sweet, spicy aroma had been her mom’s scent, one of few memories Zanne had of her. Mom in a rocking chair, a quilt bundled around her, a scarf tied turban-style around her head. Thin, bony hands gripping a cup. Flesh so pale it was nearly translucent.

“Come sit with Mommy,” she would say. And then the memory vanished.

Zanne returned upstairs for the box, which she brought to the living room. She checked the phone again, making sure the pad and pen were there. She would need to take notes when the call came—details like staging, appointment times, and tumor markers. AFP would signal liver involvement, but LDH was the more likely culprit: lymphatic metastasis.

Last time, the chemo had been like an assault, burning her hands, tormenting her stomach so that it rejected all food. She grew so thin her ribs protruded like rungs on a ladder, so weak that a walk to the bathroom depleted her. Days and nights smeared into a dark, surreal blur.

She reached into the box again, retrieving a small, perfect conch shell. She had found it the first time she and Greg camped on the Outer Banks. When they walked through that pristine white sand to the very end of the small island, it felt like the edge of the earth. The shell was half buried in a dune, its wide opening like a pale pink ear. Just then three wild horses burst through a small copse of trees, running to the beach, galloping through the surf, kicking their feet up as if to announce that island belonged to them. She had never seen anything so exhilarating.

Zanne touched the tiny bandage on her neck. The lump had been the size of a marble. Troubling because it was on the same side as her breast cancer. Two years of no recurrence and now this.

The phone rang again. It was Greg.

“Just checking in,” he said.

“You saw me ten minutes ago.”

“I didn’t feel right leaving you. Are you okay? Really okay?”

She checked her pocket for the pills.

“Don’t worry.”

“It could be nothing. But if it isn’t nothing, we’ll get through it. We did before, right?”

Greg had been wonderful through it all. His work had given him a leave of absence. He had tended to Grace, and taken Zanne to all of her appointments. But Greg hadn’t been the one to feel the burn of radiation. He hadn’t had his baby grab his ear and pull out a huge clump of hair. Hadn’t shaved his head because there was nothing else to do, only to have pale whiskers grow back along his scalp and slough off at night. Hadn’t awakened to little drifts of them on the pillow.

“Zanne?”

“I’ll call you when I hear.”

She drew a deep, unsteady breath as she hung up the phone. She felt stifled by the walls of her house. She needed fresh air and sunshine and for the damn doctor to call.

Box tucked in her arm, cordless phone snug in the pocket of her robe, she carried her tea out the back door. The Adirondack chair had been a gift from Greg when she finished chemo. She placed the cup on a table beside it and leaned into its angled back, her face tilted up, the sun like warm honey on her skin.

The doll was at the bottom of the box. She smoothed down the rumpled aviator jacket, flicked the ear flaps on the leather cap. Her aunt had given her the Amelia Earhart doll after Zanne’s seventh grade book report about the aviator, which began a lifelong obsession. Amelia was brave. Invincible. She had crossed the Pacific alone, sipping cocoa as she glimpsed the choppy sea beneath her. When she disappeared, she was trying to fly around the world. They never found her plane. Zanne liked to imagine that she didn’t die. That she lived for another thirty years on some paradise island. Maybe there had been wild horses there.

Zanne had longed for that kind of escape through much of her childhood. Living with a stepmother who had no time for her, a father whose arms weren’t wide enough for the new family and the old, in a house where her step-mother painted her bedroom Pepto pink. Ricky made his escape the wrong way. Beer at age twelve, weed at fourteen. School problems and then legal troubles until they sent him to a wilderness program. Zanne kept all his letters in her box, a journal of his drifting away. He never came back to the family, even after trade school and Narcotics Anonymous.

But he’d reconnected when Grace came along. Her big brother stood sentry during much of Zanne’s treatment. Celebrated with her and Greg the day she finished chemo.

She checked her watch: ten-fifteen. Dr. McLemore kept a busy schedule, but she knew how important this was to Zanne. Maybe she wouldn’t even tell her over the phone, but would ask Zanne to come into her office. It would feel like a death march walking down that long carpeted corridor.

The what if’s flooded her mind. What if it had spread to her lungs? What if they had to be more aggressive, and she went through surgery and chemo, maybe even radiation? And what if, after all that, she lost?

Would Grace remember her as a ghost of a woman, barely a bump under the sheets? And Greg, would she render him a caretaker again? Watch her become reduced to white cell counts and antiemetics?

She would not submit to the monster. This was why she gripped the pills; she would have this bit of control. Where would she do it? Not here. Maybe she would return to the Outer Banks, to that quiet island. She would lie on the beach, and listen for the thunder of wild horses. Imagine Amelia soaring in the clouds above her.

She heard the gate squeak open behind her. She hadn’t even dressed but didn’t care if the meter man saw her in pajamas. He could tell his friends at the bar later.

“Don’t you look ravishing.” Her brother appeared, wearing gray work clothes with his name “Rick” stitched at the pocket, but he’d always be Ricky to her. New stubble on his chin hid the scar from the skateboarding accident when he was twelve.

“Wasn’t expecting company,” she said.

He dragged over a lawn chair and sat beside her, fingers laced on his chest, face tilted to the sun like he’d come over to work on his tan.

“Shouldn’t you be at your job?”

“Lunch break.”

She looked at her watch. “At ten twenty?”

“I was hungry.” He smiled, a quick flash of crooked front teeth as familiar to her as her own bent pinkie.

“Greg called you.”

He squinted at the phone beside her. “Heard anything yet?”

She shook her head.

“It’s probably nothing.”

The words didn’t comfort her when Greg said them either. The rush to reassure meant they feared the worst.

Ricky started picking at a tiny hole in the knee of his pants. His fingers had black grease in the knuckles from whatever car he’d been working on.

“What do you remember about Mom?” she asked. They never talked about her, and she felt like she was stepping out on a delicate layer of ice that might crack at any second.

He glanced at her, then out to the expanse of yard. She wondered if he felt the ice under his feet, too. “She was amazing. Funny. Kind. Everything that Celia wasn’t.” Still that seed of anger, after all these years.

“Mom was so sick in the end.” Zanne remembered the smell of her sickness. The yellow crocheted hat she wore to cover her bald head. Curling up beside her in bed at the end of the day to tell her everything that happened. And Mom wanted to know all of it, every kindergarten lesson, every dream or nightmare, every insect or flower that Zanne had seen.

“She lived a year longer than she was supposed to. Did you know that? Dad said it was because she loved us so much she couldn’t bear leaving. I always held onto that, even when things got ugly. If Mom loved me that much, I couldn’t be all bad.”

The vibration in his voice startled her. Big brothers weren’t supposed to sound like that. He stooped down in front of her, so close she could smell car grease and Ricky sweat. “Zanne, listen to me. I wouldn’t have traded a second of my time with her. Not one second. She gave us that extra year. When I look back … it’s the best gift I’ve ever gotten.”

She closed her eyes when he pressed his lips against her forehead. “I’ll see you after work,” he said, and walked to the gate.

Zanne placed the pills beside the telephone and leaned back, staring up at the wide dome of sky. Her baby had eyes that same pale blue. Had lips like pink camellia petals. Had hands that reached out like they could grab the whole world. Maybe she’d grow up to be as fearless as Amelia, soaring through the puff-feather clouds, a breeze like timid fingers skimming her flesh.

Carla Damron draws on her experiences as both a Southerner and a clinical social worker in her fiction. Her short stories have appeared in regional anthologies like Mystery on the Wind (2009), Inkplots: Random Acts of Writing (2001) and Buck Naked Unitarians and Other Tales (2003). Her mystery novels, Keeping Silent (2001), Spider Blue (2005), and Death in Zooville (2010), each use humor and suspense to explore complex social issues like mental illness and homelessness. She recently completed an MFA in Creative Writing.